Is a no-fly zone about to be imposed over northern Syria? “No,” says U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner. Only don’t tell that to Turkey, which has, after months of contentious negotiation, agreed to allow the Incirlik air base at Adana to be used by the U.S.-led coalition to conduct both manned and unmanned airstrikes against ISIS. (Incirlik is used predominantly by the U.S. and Turkish air forces; Britain’s RAF also maintains a small presence.)
Turkish fighters jets will also be deployed against ISIS and already have been. Most notable, however, is that three separate airbases at Batman, Diyarbakir, and Malatya are also said to be on offer to coalition warplanes in “emergency” cases—an indication of Ankara’s newfound seriousness in confronting the terror army.
The use of Incirlik in particular is being described as a possible “game-changer” in the iffy year-long war because now coalition warplanes and drones can take off from a location that is a mere 250 miles from ISIS’s de facto “capital” of Raqqa, as opposed to the 1,250 miles they currently have to fly from land or carrier positions in the Persian Gulf. Drones fly at relatively slow speeds, so dramatically shrinking their proximity to targets means more frequent sorties and spy missions.
Yet Turkish media has also been awash with reports suggesting that as part of the agreement struck with Washington that Ankara would finally get its wish to ground the Syrian Air Force. Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, citing unnamed sources, claimed on Friday that a no-fly zone would be installed across a “90-kilometer line between Syria’s Mare and Cerablus will be 40 to 50 kilometers deep.”
This week, Turkey suffered its worst terrorist attack by an ISIS-linked suicide bomber who struck a protest rally in the southern city of Suruç, killing 32 and injuring over 100, mainly members of a left-wing youth group helping to rebuild the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani. This followed what the Turkish government has said was a fortnight of intense police crackdowns on ISIS networks inside the country resulting in the arrest of hundreds of terrorists. After the Suruç attack, a Turkish soldier in the borderland city of Kilis, just opposite Aleppo, was killed after five ISIS militants wielding AK-47s and rocket launchers attacked the Turkish military. For the first time, Ankara mobilized F-16s from its Diyarbakir airbase to carry out bombing raids against ISIS targets inside Syria, killing nine and injuring 12, according to a human-rights monitor.
On Wednesday, President Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone, agreeing to “stem the flow of foreign fighters and secure Turkey’s border with Syria,” according to the White House. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç ambiguously characterized the takeaway of that discussion as follows: “There is a consensus [and] unanimity of thought and action has been reached about the issue of joint operations in the future.”
No mention, however, was made at the time from the American side as to any no-fly zone. And General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, said at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday that such an option wasn’t even being discussed.
What accounts for the contradictory messaging by the two largest NATO members? “[The Turks] could be negotiating through the media,” one U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast. “We have seen them do that before.”
The ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long prioritized the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime above any international counterterrorism effort in Syria. As such, it has been accused by NATO allies, including the U.S., of adopting a dangerous policy of benign neglect—sometimes euphemistically characterized as a “wait-and-see” approach—to the jihadist menace proliferating at its doorstep. Rival secular, nationalist and Kurdish parties inside Turkey, meanwhile, have gone further, alleging that the AKP has been using the country’s intelligence services to facilitate ISIS.
Apart from Assad, Turkey’s other fixation is on Kurdish nationalism; the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), which has successfully pushed ISIS out of large swathes of territory, has been given close air support by the coalition. Yet the PYD is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization, with which Turkey has been at war for 40 years. This week, a already-tenuous ceasefire with the PKK was broken when the group killed two Turkish policemen in the town of Ceylanpinar in retaliation, it said, for the Suruç massacre.
Turkey has also previously called for Article IV consultations with NATO to discuss a no-fly zone option for Syria following military confrontations with Damascus. These began in 2012 when the Syrian Air Force downed a Turkish F4 Phantom reconnaissance plane after it briefly penetrated Syrian skies. Since then, Turkey has been shelled by the Syrian army and shelled back. It has also downed several Syrian aircraft, including fighter jets and helicopters, which allegedly violated Turkish airspace.
Since Operation Inherent Resolve got underway a year ago, Turkey has been a conspicuous non-participant. It has conditioned its support for the coalition on some strategic engagement with Assad’s military. In addition to a no-fly zone, Turkey has sought the establishment of a “buffer zone” in northern Syria for the safe repatriation of the million Syrian refugees currently living in makeshift Turkish camps. This request, too, has been serially rejected by the Obama administration.
Although in responding to questions as to whether or not a buffer zone might now be included in whatever U.S.-Turkish accord on battling ISIS may have been struck this week, the State Department’s Toner replied Friday that "we continue to have discussions.”
—With additional reporting from Nancy Youssef.